In the troubled twilight of a March evening ten years ago, an old man, whos_quipment and bearing suggested that he was fresh from travel, walked slowl_cross Clerkenwell Green, and by the graveyard of St. James's Church stood fo_ moment looking about him. His age could not be far from seventy, but, despite the stoop of his shoulders, he gave little sign of failing under th_urden of years; his sober step indicated gravity of character rather tha_odily feebleness, and his grasp of a stout stick was not such as bespeak_eed of support. His attire was neither that of a man of leisure, nor of th_ind usually worn by English mechanics. Instead of coat and waistcoat, he wor_ garment something like a fisherman's guernsey, and over this a coarse shor_loak, picturesque in appearance as it was buffeted by the wind. His trouser_ere of moleskin; his boots reached almost to his knees; for head-covering h_ad the cheapest kind of undyed felt, its form exactly that of the ol_etasus. To say that his aspect was Venerable would serve to present him in _easure, yet would not be wholly accurate, for there was too much of pas_truggle and present anxiety in his countenance to permit full expression o_he natural dignity of the features. It was a fine face and might have bee_istinctly noble, but circumstances had marred the purpose of Nature; yo_erceived that his cares had too often been of the kind which are created b_gnoble necessities, such as leave to most men of his standing a bare humanit_f visage. He had long thin white hair; his beard was short and merel_rizzled. In his left hand he carried a bundle, which probably containe_lothing.
The burial-ground by which he had paused was as little restful to the eye a_re most of those discoverable in the byways of London. The small trees tha_rew about it shivered in their leaflessness; the rank grass was wan under th_ailing day; most of the stones leaned this way or that, emblems of neglect (they were very white at the top, and darkened downwards till the damp soi_ade them black), and certain cats and dogs were prowling or sporting amon_he graves. At this corner the east wind blew with malice such as it neve_uts forth save where there are poorly clad people to be pierced; it swep_efore it thin clouds of unsavoury dust, mingled with the light refuse of th_treets. Above the shapeless houses night was signalling a murky approach; th_ky—if sky it could be called—gave threatening of sleet, perchance of snow.
And on every side was the rumble of traffic, the voiceful evidence of toil an_f poverty; hawkers were crying their goods; the inevitable organ was clangin_efore a public-house hard by; the crumpet-man was hastening along, wit_onotonous ringing of his bell and hoarse rhythmic wail.
The old man had fixed his eyes half absently on the inscription of _ravestone near him; a lean cat springing out between the iron railings seeme_o recall his attention, and with a slight sigh he went forward along th_arrow street which is called St. James's Walk. In a few minutes he ha_eached the end of it, and found himself facing a high grey-brick wall, wherein, at this point, was an arched gateway closed with black doors. H_ooked at the gateway, then fixed his gaze on something that stood jus_bove—something which the dusk half concealed, and by so doing made mor_mpressive. It was the sculptured counterfeit of a human face, that of a ma_istraught with agony. The eyes stared wildly from their sockets, the hai_truggled in maniac disorder, the forehead was wrung with torture, the cheek_unken, the throat fearsomely wasted, and from the wide lips there seemed t_e issuing a horrible cry. Above this hideous effigy was carved the legend:
'MIDDLESEX HOUSE OF DETENTION.'
Something more than pain came to the old man's face as he looked and pondered; his lips trembled like those of one in anger, and his eyes had a ster_esentful gleaming. He walked on a few paces, then suddenly stopped where _oman was standing at an open door.
'I ask your pardon,' he said, addressing her with the courtesy which owe_othing to refined intercourse, 'but do you by chance know anyone of the nam_f Snowdon hereabouts?'
The woman replied with a brief negative; she smiled at the appearance of th_uestioner, and, with the vulgar instinct, looked about for someone to shar_er amusement.
'Better inquire at the 'ouse at the corner,' she added, as the man was movin_way. 'They've been here a long time, I b'lieve.'
He accepted her advice. But the people at the public-house could not aid hi_earch. He thanked them, paused for a moment with his eyes down, then agai_ighed slightly and went forth into the gathering gloom.
Less than five minutes later there ran into the same house of refreshment _ittle slight girl, perhaps thirteen years old; she carried a jug, and at th_ar asked for 'a pint of old six.' The barman, whilst drawing the ale, calle_ut to a man who had entered immediately after the child:
'Don't know nobody called Snowdon about 'ere, do you, Mr. Squibbs?'
The individual addressed was very dirty, very sleepy, and seemingly at odd_ith mankind. He replied contemptuously with a word which, in phoneti_endering may perhaps be spelt 'Nay-oo.'
But the little girl was looking eagerly from one man to the other; what ha_een said appeared to excite keen interest in her. She forgot all about th_eer-jug that was waiting, and, after a brief but obvious struggle wit_imidity, said in an uncertain voice:
'Has somebody been asking for that name, sir?'
'Yes, they have,' the barman answered, in surprise. 'Why?'
My name's Snowdon, sir—Jane Snowdon.'
She reddened over all her face as soon as she had given utterance to th_mpulsive words. The barman was regarding her with a sort of semi-interest, and Mr. Squibbs also had fixed his bleary (or beery) eyes upon her. Neithe_ould have admitted an active interest in so pale and thin and wretchedly-cla_ little mortal. Her hair hung loose, and had no covering; it was hair of n_articular colour, and seemed to have been for a long time utterly untended; the wind, on her run hither, had tossed it into much disorder. Signs ther_ere of some kind of clothing beneath the short, dirty, worn dress, but it wa_vidently of the scantiest description. The freely exposed neck was very thin, but, like the outline of her face, spoke less of a feeble habit of body tha_f the present pinch of sheer hunger. She did not, indeed, look like one o_hose children who are born in disease and starvation, and put to nurse upo_he pavement; her limbs were shapely enough, her back was straight, she ha_eatures that were not merely human, but girl-like, and her look had in it th_ight of an intelligence generally sought for in vain among the children o_he street. The blush and the way in which she hung her head were likewis_okens of a nature endowed with ample sensitiveness.
'Oh, your name's Jane Snowdon, is it?' said the barman. 'Well, you're jus_hree minutes an' three-quarters too late. P'r'aps it's a fortune a-runnin'
after you. He was a rum old party as inquired. Never mind; it's all in a life.
There's fortunes lost every week by a good deal less than three minutes whe_t's 'orses—eh, Mr. Squibbs?'
Mr. Squibbs swore with emphasis.
The little girl took her jug of beer and was turning away.
'Hollo!' cried the barman. 'Where's the money, Jane?—if _you_ don't mind.'
She turned again in increased confusion, and laid coppers on the counter.
Thereupon the man asked her where she lived; she named a house in Clerkenwel_lose, near at hand.
'Father live there?'
She shook her head.
'I haven't got one, sir.'
'Who is it as you live with, then?'
'Mrs. Peckover, sir.'
'Well, as I was sayin', he was a queer old joker as arsted for the name o_nowdon. Shouldn't wonder if you see him goin' round.'
And he added a pretty full description of this old man, to which the gir_istened closely. Then she went thoughtfully—a little sadly—on her way.
In the street, all but dark by this time, she cast anxious glances onwards an_ehind, but no old man in an odd hat and cloak and with white hair wa_iscoverable. Linger she might not. She reached a house of which the front- door stood open; it looked black and cavernous within; but she advanced wit_he step of familiarity, and went downstairs to a front-kitchen. Through th_alf-open door came a strong odour and a hissing sound, plainly due to th_rying of sausages. Before Jane could enter she was greeted sharply in a voic_hich was young and that of a female, but had no other quality o_raciousness.
'You've taken your time, my lady! All right! just wait till I've 'ad my tea, that's all! Me an' you'll settle accounts to-night, see if we don't. Mothe_old me as she owed you a lickin', and I'll pay it off, with a little on m_wn account too. Only wait till I've 'ad my tea, that's all. What are yo_tandin' there for, like a fool? Bring that beer 'ere, an' let's see 'ow muc_ou've drank.'
'I haven't put my lips near it, miss; indeed I haven't,' pleaded the child, whose face of dread proved both natural timidity and the constant apprehensio_f ill-usage.
'Little liar! that's what you always was, an' always will be.— Take that!'
The speaker was a girl of sixteen, tall, rather bony, rudely handsome; th_and with which she struck was large and coarse-fibred, the muscles tha_mpelled it vigorous. Her dress was that of a work-girl, unsubstantial, ill- fitting, but of ambitious cut; her hair was very abundant, and rose upon th_ack of her head in thick coils, an elegant fringe depending in front. Th_ire had made her face scarlet, and in the lamplight her large eyes glistene_ith many joys.
First and foremost, Miss Clementina Peckover rejoiced because she had lef_ork much earlier than usual, and was about to enjoy what she would hav_escribed as a 'blow out.' Secondly, she rejoiced because her mother, th_andlady of the house, was absent for the night, and consequently she woul_xercise sole authority over the domestic slave, Jane Snowdon—that is to say, would indulge to the uttermost her instincts of cruelty in tormenting _efenceless creature. Finally—a cause of happiness antecedent to the others, but less vivid in her mind at this moment—in the next room lay awaiting buria_he corpse of Mrs. Peckover's mother-in-law, whose death six days ago ha_lunged mother and daughter into profound delight, partly because they wer_elieved at length from making a pretence of humanity to a bed-ridden ol_oman, partly owing to the fact that the deceased had left behind her a sum o_eventy-five pounds, exclusive of moneys due from a burial-club.
'Ah!' exclaimed Miss Peckover (who was affectionately known to her intimate_s 'Clem'), as she watched Jane stagger back from the blow, and hide her fac_n silent endurance of pain. 'That's just a morsel to stay your appetite, m_ady! You didn't expect me back 'ome at this time, did you? You thought as yo_as goin' to have the kitchen to yourself when mother went. Ha ha! h_o!—These sausages is done; now you clean that fryin'-pan; and if I can find _peck of dirt in it as big as 'arlf a farden, I'll take you by the 'air of the
'ed an' clean it with your face, _that's_ what I'll do I Understand? Oh, _ean what I say, my lady! Me an' you's a-goin' to spend a evenin' together, there's no two ways about that. He ho! he he!'
The frankness of Clem's brutality went far towards redeeming her character.
The exquisite satisfaction with which she viewed Jane's present misery, th_road joviality with which she gloated over the prospect of cruelties shortl_o be inflicted, put her at once on a par with the noble savage running wil_n woods. Civilisation could bring no charge against this young woman; it an_he had no common criterion. Who knows but this lust of hers for sanguinar_omination was the natural enough issue of the brutalising serfdom of he_redecessors in the family line of the Peckovers? A thrall suddenly endowe_ith authority will assuredly make bitter work for the luckless creature i_he next degree of thraldom.
A cloth was already spread across one end of the deal table, with such othe_reparations for a meal as Clem deemed adequate. The sausages—five i_umber—she had emptied from the frying-pan directly on to her plate, and wit_hem all the black rich juice that had exuded in the process o_ooking—particularly rich, owing to its having several times caught fire an_lazed triumphantly. On sitting down and squaring her comely frame to work, the first thing Clem did was to take a long draught out of the beer-jug; refreshed thus, she poured the remaining liquor into a glass. Ready at han_as mustard, made in a tea-cup; having taken a certain quantity of thi_ondiment on to her knife, she proceeded to spread each sausage with it fro_nd to end, patting them in a friendly way as she finished the operation. Nex_he sprinkled them with pepper, and after that she constructed a little pil_f salt on the side of the plate, using her fingers to convey it from th_alt-cellar. It remained to cut a thick slice of bread—she held the loa_ressed to her bosom whilst doing this—and to crush it down well into th_lack grease beside the sausages; then Clem was ready to begin.
For five minutes she fed heartily, showing really remarkable skill i_onveying pieces of sausage to her mouth by means of the knife alone. Findin_t necessary to breathe at last, she looked round at Jane. The hand-maiden wa_n her knees near the fire, scrubbing very hard at the pan with successiv_ieces of newspaper. It was a sight to increase the gusto of Clem's meal, bu_f a sudden there came into the girl's mind a yet more delightful thought. _ave mentioned that in the back-kitchen lay the body of a dead woman; it wa_lready encoffined, and waited for interment on the morrow, when Mrs. Peckove_ould arrive with a certain female relative from St. Albans. Now the proximit_f this corpse was a ceaseless occasion of dread and misery to Jane Snowdon; the poor child had each night to make up a bed for herself in this front-room, dragging together a little heap of rags when mother and daughter were gone u_o their chamber, and since the old woman's death it was much if Jane ha_njoyed one hour of unbroken sleep. She endeavoured to hide these feelings, but Clem, with her Bed Indian scent, divined them accurately enough. She hi_pon a good idea.
'Go into the next room,' she commanded suddenly, 'and fetch the matches off o_he mantel-piece. I shall want to go upstairs presently, to see if you'v_crubbed the bed-room well.'
Jane was blanched; but she rose from her knees at once, and reached _andlestick from above the fireplace.
'What's that for?' shouted Clem, with her mouth full. 'You've no need of _ight to find the mantel-piece. If you're not off—'
Jane hastened from the kitchen. Clem yelled to her to close the door, and sh_ad no choice but to obey. In the dark passage outside there was darkness tha_ight be felt. The child all but fainted with the sickness of horror as sh_urned the handle of the other door and began to grope her way. She kne_xactly where the coffin was; she knew that to avoid touching it in th_iminutive room was all but impossible. And touch it she did. Her anguis_ttered itself, not in a mere sound of terror, but in a broken word or two o_ prayer she knew by heart, including a name which sounded like a char_gainst evil. She had reached the mantel-piece; oh, she could not, could no_ind the matches I Yes, at last her hand closed on them. A blind rush, and sh_as out again in the passage. She re-entered the front-kitchen with limbs tha_uivered, with the sound of dreadful voices ringing about her, and blanknes_efore her eyes.
Clem laughed heartily, then finished her beer in a long, enjoyable pull. He_ppetite was satisfied; the last trace of oleaginous matter had disappeare_rom her plate, and now she toyed with little pieces of bread lightly dippe_nto the mustard-pot. These _bonnes bouches_ put her into excellent humour; presently she crossed her arms and leaned back. There was no denying that Cle_as handsome; at sixteen she had all her charms in apparent maturity, and the_ere of the coarsely magnificent order. Her forehead was low and of grea_idth; her nose was well shapen, and had large sensual apertures; her crue_ips may be seen on certain fine antique busts; the neck that supported he_eavy head was splendidly rounded. In laughing, she became a model for a_rtist, an embodiment of fierce life independent of morality. Her health wa_robably less sound than it seemed to be; one would have compared her, not t_ome piece of exuberant normal vegetation, but rather to a rank, evilly- fostered growth. The putrid soil of that nether world yields other form_esides the obviously blighted and sapless.
'Have you done any work for Mrs. Hewett to-day?' she asked of her victim, after sufficiently savouring the spectacle of terror.
'Yes, miss; I did the front-room fireplace, an' fetched fourteen of coals, an'
washed out a few things.'
'What did she give you?'
'A penny, miss. I gave it to Mrs. Peckover before she went.'
'Oh, you did? Well, look 'ere; you'll just remember in future that all you ge_rom the lodgers belongs to me, an' not to mother. It's a new arrangement, understand. An' if you dare to give up a 'apenny to mother, I'll lick you til_ou're nothin' but a bag o' bones. Understand?'
Having on the spur of the moment devised this ingenious difficulty for th_hild, who was sure to suffer in many ways from such a conflict o_uthorities, Clem began to consider how she should spend her evening. Afte_ll, Jane was too poor-spirited a victim to afford long entertainment. Cle_ould have liked dealing with some one who showed fight—some one with whom sh_ould try savage issue in real tooth-and-claw conflict. She had in mind _eally exquisite piece of cruelty, but it was a joy necessarily postponed to _ate hour of the night. In the meantime, it would perhaps be as well to take _troll, with a view of meeting a few friends as they came away from the work- rooms. She was pondering the invention of some long and hard task to b_xecuted by Jane in her absence, when a knocking at the house-door made itsel_eard. Clem at once went up to see who the visitor was.
A woman in a long cloak and a showy bonnet stood on the step, protectin_erself with an umbrella from the bitter sleet which the wind was now drivin_hrough the darkness. She said that she wished to see Mrs. Hewett.
'Second-floor front,' replied Clem in the offhand, impertinent tone wherewit_he always signified to strangers her position in the house.
The visitor regarded her with a look of lofty contempt, and, havin_eliberately closed her umbrella, advanced towards the stairs. Clem drew int_he back regions for a few moments, but as soon as she heard the closing of _oor in the upper part of the house, she too ascended, going on tip-toe, wit_ noiselessness which indicated another side of her character. Having reache_he room which the visitor had entered, she brought her ear close to th_eyhole, and remained in that attitude for a long time—nearly twenty minutes, in fact. Her sudden and swift return to the foot of the stairs was followed b_he descent of the woman in the showy bonnet.
'Miss Peckover I' cried the latter when she had reached the foot of th_tairs.
'Well, what is it?' asked Clem, seeming to come up from the kitchen.
'Will you 'ave the goodness to go an' speak to Mrs. Hewett for a hinstant?'
said the woman, with much affectation of refined speech.
'All right! I will just now, if I've time.'
The visitor tossed her head and departed, whereupon Clem at once ran upstairs.
In five minutes she was back in the kitchen.
'See 'ere,' she addressed Jane. 'You know where Mr. Kirkwood works in St.
John's Square? You've been before now. Well, you're to go an' wait at the doo_ill he comes out, and then you're to tell him to come to Mrs. Hewett a_unst. Understand?—Why ain't these tea-things all cleared away? All right Wai_ill you come back, that's all. Now be off, before I skin you alive!'
On the floor in a corner of the kitchen lay something that had once been _irl's hat. This Jane at once snatched up and put on her head. Without othe_overing, She ran forth upon her errand.